Is universal open access closer than we imagined?
Member, National Mission on Libraries & Distinguished Fellow, Centre for Internet and Society, Bangalore
It is indeed a great pleasure to be here with all of you. It was when I was with NISCAIR, then known as PID, that I had my early international recognitions. After being Secretary and Editor of Publications at the Indian Academy of Sciences, Bangalore, for two years, I returned to Publications and Information Directorate (PID) with new ideas, worked on them, widened my interests and moved to ICT for rural development and so on. So, to meet former colleagues and to talk to them about something that I am passionate about is a great pleasure.
Today I am going to talk to you about something that has been engaging my attention for the past 15 years. We are talking about open access to science and scholarship, particularly to the published literature, that is, the papers published in professional journals. We want them to be available free to all scientists and scholars in particular and to people at large in general. But there are some people opposing the very idea of open access. They say, “we can’t give it away for free, there is a cost for doing things.” Now, if we have been talking about something for 10-15 years, how soon are we going to achieve that goal? Or is it going to take too long? This is the question that I am attempting to answer today.
First, there is a caveat. What I am going to talk to you is not entirely original. I didn’t do all the work that I am going to tell you about today. I have borrowed freely from friends from all around the world with whom I communicate and correspond with. I am a member of several discussion lists on the Internet, as well as I get lot of emails that people volunteer to send me. I also draw from my own earlier work. So, what you will hear today is a mix of my own passion and what I have learnt from others.
A few days ago a very famous person passed away. Prof. Elinor (Lin) Ostrom was the first woman ever to win a Nobel Prize in economics. She won the Nobel Prize for her work on what is called ‘Natural Resources Commons’. We often see two states or even two countries quarreling over water, which is a natural resource. There are many other such natural resources which should be shared among people rather than enclosed or commodified. That is the idea that she was propagating. If such resources are privatized as against owned by the community, the world won’t progress at all and there will be no sustainable development. Very soon the world economies will crash. Already the economy crashed in Greece and it has affected entire Europe, and the collapse of an American investment bank has triggered a paralysis in the global financial system leading to a global economic and jobs crisis throwing millions of people out of work.
So, if we want to sustain, we have to have natural resources as commons.
Now there is another type of commons that Professor Orstom was interested in, and that is what I am going to talk about. That is known as ‘Knowledge Commons’. All science and scholarship constitute the knowledge commons and everybody should have access to this knowledge at will so that nobody needs to go through barriers to obtain that knowledge. But currently there are barriers. If I want to read an article published in a journal that is available in the National Science Library, and if I don’t have that journal in my office, I have to pay US $ 30 to US $ 40 to obtain a reprint from the publisher. That is the situation today. This is what we call the toll barrier which is preventing our goal to achieve the knowledge commons.
Let us have a quick overview of what has happened during the past several years. Stevan Harnard whom I know closely and who has come to India a few years ago wrote a paper on skywriting in 1987 and another on scholarly skywriting in 1990. It is about scholarly writing that is not on paper that only one person can read at a given time but scholarly writing that anyone can read and comment upon, like anyone can see the stars and the sun. Now, knowledge commons can be made a reality if we follow the concept of scholarly skywriting — writing in open access journals and depositing papers in open access repositories.
And then came Paul Ginsparg, a physicist who worked for the Los Alamos National Laboratory in USA, in the early 1990s. He realized that scientists had to wait for research findings to be published as papers in journals before they could read them, and scientists and researchers who did not have access to the journals were deprived of access to those papers – a flawed method of scholarly communication. So he thought that it would be better, if the scientists made available the first draft of their paper as soon as it was ready for others to read. Of course, in those days there was no Internet. So, scientists mailed the preprints, the first draft of the paper to one location in Los Alamos. They maintained huge racks full of preprints and every week Paul Gisparg and his colleagues mailed the list to hundreds of interested scientists by telex, by letter and so on. And then if one is a member of that list, he or she can ask for certain preprints which were then mailed to the particular scientist. So, Paul Ginsparg centralized the whole thing which is now the famous open access repository, arXiv. Incidentally, the arXiv server has been shifted for some political reasons from Los Alamos to Cornell University (http://www.nature.com/nature/debates/e-access/Articles/ginsparg.html). [Probably the laboratory’s management thought that Ginsparg was spending too much time on arXiv and opening up access to scholarly literature than on doing research in the lab. His salary review described him as "a strictly average performer by overall lab standards; with no particular computer skills contributing to lab programs; easily replaced, and moreover overpaid, according to an external market survey." Evidently their form didn't have a box for: 'completely transformed the nature and reach of scientific information in physics and other fields,' notes Peter Lepage, chair of Cornell's physics department].
Now arXiv has many mirror servers. One of them is in Madras, where I live, at the Institute of Mathematical Sciences. But Paul Ginsparg’s effort was not the first. Interestingly, physicists have always been interested in sharing unlike the rest of us.
You may know that there are two major laboratories in the world where they have huge accelerators; one is CERN in Geneva (the European Organization for Nuclear Research) and the other is SLAC (Stanford Linear Accelerator Center). These two laboratories have maintained preprint systems and it is evident that this has been more of a culture among physicists. But such a thing has not happened in biology, chemistry, engineering and many other disciplines.
Interestingly, motivation for the open access movement came not from the scientists but from the librarians, who have responsibility of providing the scientists with information they need so that they can carry out their research efficiently. Just a few minutes ago, Dr. Gangan Prathap was telling me that there is a huge crisis now, the journal prices are shooting up and we have to provide a lot of journals to various labs and the budgets needed are much higher than what will be permitted and so on. So, there is a crisis. The American Librarians felt this crisis long ago. There is an Association for Research Libraries (ARL) in the USA headed by a lady called Heather Joseph. They have been watching the price rice of journals and have been releasing reports on the rise of journal prices year after year for a long time. And it reached a stage where the American research libraries found that they could no longer subscribe to all the journals that the scientists in universities and research institutes need. There is a need to curtail the number of journals or they have to curtail buying books to feed the subscription to journals. And even then they found it difficult. They called it the ‘serials crisis’ about 15 years ago. The librarians and ARL members in US and elsewhere have been talking to publishers to bring down prices but the publishers have been adamant. In fact they were increasing the journal costs much higher than the general inflation rate.
Following this ‘serials crisis’, the librarians formed a group called SPARC (the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition) and they requested the scientists to set up their own journals and quit editorial boards of expensive commercial journals. Unfortunately, that arrangement did not work out for long. There were only a few such journals which are doing well. Then they thought of free subscription option for journals and thus the concept of open access came into being. It was realized that if scientists are able to provide these papers, in a repository either run by the institution or a central organization, then we can all access the same. One of the largest repositories in the biomedical area today is run by the National Institutes of Health in the US and it is called PubMed Central. Even larger than that is CiteSeer for computer scientists and mathematicians. So these are some central repositories. There is a central repository in the UK called Depot (OpenDepot.org) where anyone can place one’s papers, irrespective of the subject. However, open access activists across the world prefer interoperable institutional repositories because it can help in better management. We shall not go into the details of these here.
In a meet of open access advocates in Budapest, Hungary, in 2002, convened by the Open Society Institute, they produced a declaration called the Budapest Declaration. This was followed by the Berlin Declaration, the Bethesda Declaration, the Bangalore Declaration, and so on. We are interested in mobilizing public opinion among scientists, scholars, librarians and the citizens to make the literature of science and scholarship open and free. That’s our ambition. About that time, the computer science department of Southampton University came up with the EPrints software for creating such repositories. It is a very popular software and many of us around the world use it. They also suggested that journals themselves could be made open access. For example, all the journals published by NISCAIR, IASc, INSA, ICMR, ICAR are open access. Of course, it took a long time for us to convince authorities in India to make the journals open access. What is more, journals of these agencies and institutes do not charge the author or the reader. But many open access journals in the west that are more well known and sought after, do charge the authors or the author’s institution a fee for publishing a paper. So, if one has internet access, one can read the open access journals without any sort of barrier. More people being able to access means science and scholarship can grow faster. It is not only making things available for free, but also helping improving the pace of growth of science.
There are about 7,500 open access journals available today and a little more than 2,900 repositories all over the world. To this I am going to add that there are nearly 200 open access mandates. What is a mandate? Funders and research institutions can mandate by saying “if you receive money from us, or if you work in our organization and do research you should necessarily make all your papers open access. Either you publish in an open access journal or you place your paper in an open access repository.” Currently there are only 200 mandates. And some of these mandates are by big funders like National Institutes of Health, Wellcome Trust, Howard Hughes Medical Institute and so on. Despite these efforts, currently, only 20-30% of the papers are available in open access. And if one takes only the current papers, it is close to 30% including open access journals and open access repositories. This is less than a third of what the world publishes today in science, technology, engineering and medicine. It has to be made 100%
Suddenly things started happening in 2012. Timothy Gowers, a mathematics professor at Cambridge University, a Fellow of the Royal Society and winner of the Fields Medal, has not been publishing in Elsevier journals for a long time. He wrote a blog entry in early January 2012 about why he did not want to associate himself with Elsevier in any manner. That led to ‘The cost of knowledge’ and the ‘Boycott Elsevier’ movement. The latter has been signed by about 10,000 scientists and the boycott has been covered widely in science journals and the media. This had an enormous effect. Elsevier was supporting passing of a bill called the Research Works Act in the US Congress. If passed, the Bill would have nullified what little has been done for open access in US, and the National Institute of Health’s PubMed Central programme, the neccesacity for people to place papers in PubMed Central etc., would be withdrawn. And this would be extended to other funding agencies. Surely, passing the Research Works Act would have been a retrograde step. Immediately after Boycott Elsevier and The Cost of Knowledge movement, quietly Elsevier withdrew its support for the bill and eventually the bill itself was withdrawn.
We know that Harvard University is the richest university in the world. Their endowment is the highest in the world. A few days ago, Harvard issued a communiqué that they are unable to subscribe to the journals that the scientists need as the subscriptions costs are very high. Prof. Robert Darnton, director of Harvard Library, characterized the current system of subscriptions as absurd and said that “the answer will be open-access journal publishing.” It was followed by CalTech, MIT and others also asking its researchers and scientists to consider open access publishing. So, the momentum is picking up from this year.
The European Union started a project called PEER (Publishing and the Ecology of European Research) three years ago. There is a Commissioner for Digital Agenda in Europe (Vice President Neelie Kroes of the European Union) charged with the responsibility of making Europe fully digital and she appointed a group of people to look into the need for open access and answer questions such as “will open access adversely affect the dissemination of information, will the scientists really benefit” and so on. After three years, this committee has submitted a report and the report has clearly said that open access is inevitable and it is good for all of us expect the commercial publishers who would feel a pinch and we need to look into it and so on.
If you are a great lover or admirer of open access, the right place to be in is the UK. They have achieved the most. There are seven research councils in the United Kingdom and all of them have mandated open access. If you receive one penny or one pound for doing research from any of the seven councils, you necessarily have to make your work open access. It is compulsory. The Wellcome Trust, one of the largest funders of research in the entire world has also mandated open access a few years ago. Anybody receiving money from the Wellcome Trust to do research will have to make their papers in open access. There is a body called the Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC) responsible for inspiring colleges and universities in the innovative use of digital technologies and helping to maintain the UK’s position as a global leader in education. JISC is doing research in various areas of open access.
Less than two weeks ago, Nature editor-in-chief Philip Campbell said that open access to scientific research is inevitable, and that it will “happen in the long run.” He related his own recent experience of reading papers on psychology and psychiatric treatments. “It’s been a delight to find how many of those papers are published open access. I’ve been able to dip around into papers, get what I want, not necessarily the whole paper, and immediately find what I need. As a reader experience and a researcher experience, that’s very compelling.”
Clearly, the world is now moving towards open access.
In the future there will be text mining. Text mining cannot be done with the current system of subscribed journals. Unless they are all open, you cannot mine them. Unless you mine a vast mountain of data, you cannot have big results. For example, hundreds of people across the world were involved in the Human Genome Project. In such mega-initiatives, if someone withholds the data, others can’t proceed further. It has to be done in the open access mode. In India we have a good example, viz. the CSIR’s Open Source Drug Discovery project. Nothing is a secret in the OSDD project. And that is what we want to achieve.
In the recent past, publishers have come under intense criticism and the Government of UK wanted to do something about the people’s anger and displeasure. Minister of State for Universities and Science David Willetts drafted Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia, to advise the UK Government on how to make the entire scientific literature freely accessible. In the UK and Europe, they are going to bring about something that is very similar to the Federal Research Public Access bill of the US. This bill in the US requires all research funded by major Government funding agencies like NSF available in the open access channel.
Two days ago Dame Janet Finch released a report. It urges funders of UK research to encourage scientists to publish their results in open access journals, and argues that there is a powerful moral case for publicly-funded research to be freely available. Besides, there could be considerable economic benefits if industry has free access to research. “The long-term future lies with open access,” says Dame Janet.
Responding to the report, the Wellcome Trust’s Director Sir Mark Walport said “Open access is the only way to ensure that important research is made freely accessible to all. It will help drive forward innovation and breakthroughs in medical research.”
Public Library of Science is a non-profit publisher, membership and advocacy organisation. It publishes seven journals. About six years ago, they started a new journal called PLoS One. This is a different kind of journal. The papers are refereed after they are published. Not before. So, one can publish a paper if it is reasonably oaky and then anyone can comment. And authors get the crowd sourced wisdom. Within the first four or five years, PLoS became the largest journal in the world. And today in the sixth year, it has published more than 13,798 papers in one year and has a good impact factor, 4.411.
In India, Prof. Balaram, Director of the Indian Institute of Science, is a great advocate of open access. He is the most read Editor of Current Science. Perhaps many people read Current Science for Prof. Balaram’s editorial. He has written half a dozen editorials stating that open access is inevitable, it is important and so on. But he refuses to mandate it in his own institute, the Indian Institute of Science, for whatever reasons. Things move rather slowly in India. Prof. M S Valiathan when he was President of INSA wanted to implement open access at the Academy. So, we put together a small group and held a one-day seminar as part of the Academy’s annual meeting. This was followed by INSA signing the Berlin declaration and making all the INSA journals open access. Then we persuaded the Indian Academy of Sciences to set up an institutional repository for the papers of all the Fellows, both living and dead. Currently, it is the largest repository in India.
So, what should be done finally to achieve 100% open access? We should persuade students and other citizens (taxpayers whose money supports most research) to join the movement. A couple of days ago, two gentlemen in Chandigarh have created an open access repository for all RTI papers (http://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/Delhi/article3536788.ece). If it can be done for RTI, can’t we do it for science, which is much better organized already. We should write to our Parliamentarians to enact laws to mandate open access to publicly-funded research, similar to the Bill in the US. And, however indifferent they may be, we should try to impress upon the vast majority of our scientists to place the full texts of all their research publications in open access repositories.
The problem we face in India is not technical – we have all the knowhow and skills. It is human – apathy of scientists and policy makers.
The answer to the question posed in the title is: Yes, we are close and yet too far.